“He did, yeah,” Jack said. “But he was half asleep even before we left.”
“Come on,” Merritt said. The big man brushed past Jack and started up the stairs, taking them two at a time with his long stride. They’d heard no gunshots, but after that initial awful scream, no more voices either.
“There are others staying here,” Jack whispered.
“It’s not them I care about,” Merritt said without turning around. He was at the head of the staircase now, and turning left along the corridor that led to their room. Jack kept up with him, heart thumping, senses heightened, and he tingled all over. Merritt and Jack paused outside the closed door to their room. No other doors were open.
“Maybe it was just someone…,” Jack whispered, raising his eyebrows with a shrug.
“Couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Could you?”
Jack shook his head.
Merritt tapped the barrel of his pistol against the door. “Jim?” There was no answer. He pressed his ear to the door, listened, glanced at Jack, and shook his head.
“Maybe we should—,” Jack began, but Merritt stood back and kicked at the door. Jack backed away and let the big man kick.
The door swung open—it had not been latched or locked, it seemed—and bounced off the wall, springing back and giving them only a brief view of what lay on the bed.
Merritt gasped, but Jack was through the door within a couple of heartbeats. All me, he thought, this is all me, all my fault, my stupid fault for getting involved. But then he realized with a gush of relief that Jim was not dead after all. He moved slowly, turning his head to the left and back to the right again. Blood was splashed across his pillow, and one hand was raised in a warding-off gesture, his little finger bent backward at an unnatural angle. There was a gash above his left eye from which the blood still flowed.
Jack looked quickly around the large room, saw no one waiting in the shadows, then advanced on the bed. “Jim,” he said, and his friend opened his good eye.
Jim gurgled something. His eye went wide.
From behind him, Jack heard the terrible meaty impact of wood against flesh and bone. Someone grunted, and by the time he’d turned around, Merritt was slumping against the open door. Archie stood behind him in the doorway, and he grinned at Jack as he brought the wooden club down on the back of Merritt’s head one more time.
“Evenin’, Jack,” William said, slipping through the doorway beside Archie.
“Son of a—” Jack pointed his pistol, but already he knew he could not shoot. William did not carry a gun, only a wooden club, the same as Archie. And in the darkened corridor behind them, more shapes shuffled and came closer.
Perhaps if he’d known what was to come, he would have fired. Shot William, killed Archie, and then tried to fight his way through the men behind them. Perhaps he should have.
But right then all he knew was the present. So he dropped the gun on the bed and put up his fists, as ready to fight as he’d ever been before.
Archie laughed and dropped his bloodied club, balling his fist. William’s smile was as cool and haunting as ever. Two more men came into the room—bad men, wild men, with the glint of brutality in their eyes and the scars of their rough existence marking their skin.
“Come on, then,” Jack said.
And so they came.
“Come on, then,” Jack said.
ONLY THE WILD
HE WAS LOST IN ANOTHER terrible storm. Snow swirled and raged heavier than he had ever thought possible. He could feel it pelting his skin, like shards of ice instead of soft flakes, and when he tried to breathe in, snow invaded his throat and lungs. It froze him on the inside, while outside he could feel little. The smell of muck and horses pervaded the air, but he was motionless in this whiteout, and there was not a sound to be heard. This is the true white silence, he thought, and then between gusts of snow he caught sight of a familiar shape. The wolf was running toward him, bounding through snow so deep that the creature all but disappeared with each jump. It ran and howled—though he could not hear it—but it never seemed to draw any closer.
A curtain of snow obscured his vision, and he felt so alone.
A steady, low bumping began, so slight that he was not certain whether he was feeling or hearing it. And though he tried to walk, look around, see his hands, it was only his awareness that acknowledged the blizzard, not his body. Dreaming, he thought, but even that did not feel quite right.
He caught sight of the wolf again, fighting its way through the snow. It seemed closer than before, but still he could not hear it. He tried to shout, but it could not hear him, either. There was just the snow, and that steady thump…thump…thump….
It was impact, and noise. And beneath the noise there were smaller thuds, coming from farther away but adding to the rhythms that seemed to be assaulting his body and senses.
The snow started to turn brown. It melted away, taking the blank landscape beyond with it, and the sound and feel of the impacts became more defined.
He heard the loud howl of a wolf, so familiar and real that he almost felt as if he could grab hold of it. He smelled horse, opened his eyes, and could see three men ahead of him, walking toward a thickly forested hillside. The horse to which Jack had been strapped ambled after them. There was no snow on the ground; that terrible blizzard remained in his skull.
“That sounds close,” one of the men said.
“Yup, but you’ll never see them,” another man replied. He glanced across at Jack, and it was Archie. “Well now, look who’s awake,” Archie said. “Stan, wait up! Got another one who can walk.”
The horse stopped, stomping its feet a few times, and each stomp pounded into his head. Archie untied him, ripping ropes from around his waist and arms, and all the time he was whispering into Jack’s ear, “Now’s your time, Jack, now’s your time, now is when you’ll find out how tough you are, how hard, and I look forward to every minute of every day from now on, now that you’re awake. Little bastard.”
Jack’s arms were afire with pins and needles, and he groaned as circulation found its way back through his shoulders and along to his hands. He wasn’t sure whether his skin burned or was frozen solid.
Archie pushed him from the horse.
Jack twisted to keep his head from hitting the ground, but the fall knocked the wind out of him. He rolled onto his back and stared up at a clear blue sky, and he wondered how something so beautiful could exist in the hell he’d just woken to.
“Up!” Archie said. He kicked Jack in the thigh. “Make yourself useful. Up, now!”
Jack tried, gingerly, to obey. He closed his eyes against the thumping rush of pain throbbing in his head. Every inch of him felt like it had been boiled and cut, whipped and frozen, and he knew it would be a while before he could truly assess his injuries.
“Up, or I’ll gut you and leave you for the wolves.” Archie sounded serious.
Jack looked around. They were up in the hills, forested slopes rising around them, a small creek running somewhere off to the left. There was no sign of Dawson City. He saw men carrying guns and little else, horses and dogs, and other men bearing great burdens, some of them with their legs tied just far enough apart to enable them to walk. Through the pain, he realized what had happened to him: They’d shanghaied him, and for the moment, he was a slave. And he also knew that Archie was serious. Away from whatever scrap of civilization Dawson City offered, out here he really would gut Jack and leave him for the wolves.
Jack stood, and it was one of the most painful experiences of his life. He bit his lip to prevent himself from fainting.
Archie chuckled and threw a bag at Jack’s feet. “Just this for now. Don’t want you injuring yourself.” His voice turned dark. “Lost enough of you already, and the real work’s not yet begun.”
The column moved off again. Archie stayed close, a rifle cradled in his arms, but Jack tried his best not to look at the big man. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction…and besides, he had to concentrate on every single step.
A few minutes later, walking, starting to think about where he was hurt and how badly, Jack noticed the man walking ten feet to his left.
“Merritt!” Jack whispered.
Though he must have heard, Merritt didn’t look up.
“Merritt! Hey, you all right?”
His burly friend looked fine, walking as strongly and confidently as ever. There was a big pack on his back, and he carried several long shovels across his chest.
“Jim’s dead,” Merritt said without turning to look at Jack. And through everything else he said, he could not bring himself to look up from the ground before him. “They must’ve hit him harder than they needed, because when he woke up on one of the horses and they cut him loose, he fell. Could hardly stand. I went and tried to help, but they beat me back. Jim was walking in circles. He’d lost his glasses, but it wasn’t that—it was…it was his head. It got all swollen where he’d been hit, but it looked soft. They tried to get him walking straight, gave him a load to carry, but he fell again and again. Told him what they’d do to him if he didn’t walk, but I don’t think he even heard. Then William—your friend William, Jack, guy with the look of death in his eyes, the one you made an enemy out of—he pulled his gun and shot Jim in the head. ‘Too much trouble,’ he said, and everyone started walking again. Didn’t move him aside, just walked on by as his body started to cool. I tried going back to him, but they wouldn’t let me. I wanted to fight, but I didn’t have it in me, Jack.”
“Jim…,” Jack said softly. He glanced to his right at Archie, only to find the bearded thug grinning. He’s letting Merritt tell me this, Jack thought. He wants me to know.
“Jim’s dead,” Merritt said. “And if it weren’t for you an’ your fists…Who knows, Jack? Who knows?”
“Merritt?” Jack said. No, not me, not my fault. “Merritt?” But his big friend did not look up, and as the day wore on, he moved away from Jack, farther up the line of human packhorses.
Jack watched and listened for the wolf, but after the cry that had woken him, there was nothing.
Only the wild.
It had taken Jack seven months, during which time he had made three friends and lost two of them—one through the cruelty of the slave drivers and the other through blame and guilt—but at last he was panning for gold. The third friend he thought might exist only as a madness of his mind. And out here in the beautiful, awe-inspiring, brutal wilderness of the Yukon, that wolf felt closer than ever before.
He supposed he should have expected brutality to exist here, where gold painted men’s perceptions with the possibility of untold fortunes. His short time in prison had made him shockingly aware of the potential for cruelty that existed in some men, and out in the wild, with the law spread so thinly it might as well be a breath in the wind, sometimes that cruelty came to the fore. He should have expected murder and theft, jealousy and greed, and dead men littering the wondrous landscape, with bullet holes or shovel-blade wounds the only evidence of their search for the yellow metal.
William was their leader, of that he was already certain. The man had shorn himself of the trappings of civilization and morality, and he wore cruelty like a new skin. Perhaps he had always been cruel—certainly he had always had that potential—but Jack suspected that coming here had changed William completely. With his hair slicked back and that mustache, the short man reminded him of a cardsharp in some western dime novel. He had the air of a man reveling in the freedom of the Yukon, and every bad thing that freedom permitted.
Archie seemed to be William’s right-hand man. His muscle. Jack had bettered him in a fight, and he knew that marked him for extra-special treatment. He had already caught Archie glaring at him many times, and Jack was aware that he would be made to suffer for that beating back in Dawson.
There were seven others. All of them were heavily armed with rifles and revolvers, and some of them had taken to carrying short wooden clubs spiked with nails. Jack saw no hope of escape or help in any of them—greedy, wild, brutal men, criminals pushed north by their crimes and pulled by the possibility of gold. He had already watched one of the slaves badly beaten simply for sitting for a rest, and that man worked now with one eye swollen shut and a limp so heavy that Jack suspected his leg was fractured.
The slaves. There were twelve of them, including Jack and Merritt. Several Indians, four black men, a few white; the slavers did not distinguish between color or creed in who they chose to labor for them. Perhaps they had press-ganged people who looked strong, although one of the Indians must have been eighty years old. Maybe they had attacked only people who had offended them in some way, but there was a Frenchman who could barely speak a word of English, and he seemed to Jack a gentle, intelligent soul.
Whatever the reasons for selection, the slavers worked them hard.
The morning after Jack had awoken on the horse’s back, after marching them through the night with only one stop for a drink and a bite of stale bread, William’s gang put them to work in a narrow, shallow creek. Earlier they had passed two dead men, just as dawn painted the eastern hills, the stark white of bones showing through tattered, rotting flesh. The men had been torn apart, little to distinguish one from another save the color of their boots. Tools were strewn about them—prospectors—and Jack had seen dried black blood splashed on the plants and ground. They were recent kills, and for a few miles after they marched past, even the slavers were quiet.
What did that? Jack had wondered. Man or beast? Or perhaps neither. The brutality of the men’s deaths had followed him, a memory as solid as the deep shadows he sensed watching. Shadows too deep and too cruel to be the wolf.
At last they had stopped at the creek. The stream emerged from a fold in the land, passing out from a small, tree-clogged ravine and flowing merrily across the floor of a shallow valley. There were few trees down here—the ground looked as if it was affected by regular flooding—and most of the forested areas started a hundred paces in any direction. The creek bed was perhaps as deep as a man was tall, thirty feet across; and at the moment the stream filled less than a third of its width.